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Despite Defeat, Iran's Footballers Won

note: This essay was published prior to Iran's second and third matches in the World Cup, which resulted in a victory over Wales and a defeat to the United States, results which did not allow Iran to advance to the next stage of the tournament. 

Iran’s national football team, known affectionately as Team Melli, kicked off its World Cup on Monday in dispiriting fashion. The side, which came into the tournament the highest-ranked team from Asia, lost a one-sided match to England, 6-2. There is time to make amends. On Friday, Team Melli plays Wales — a potentially winnable match for the Iranians — before taking on the United States in a tantalizing fixture next week.

For Iranian football fans, myself included, World Cup games are ordinarily the pinnacle of sporting excitement. This year, in Qatar, things are different. Team Melli is playing amid a popular uprising, set off by the killing of a young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, by Iran’s morality police in mid-September. In the weeks since, protests — spearheaded by women, the young and ethnic minorities — have spread to every province in the country under the rallying cry of “Woman, life, freedom.” The government has responded viciously, arresting thousands and killing hundreds more. Last week, at least a dozen people, including a 9-year-old boy, were shot dead on a single night.

Against this bloody backdrop, many Iranians have said that they won’t be supporting the side. Some have called for FIFA to remove the team from competition altogether, arguing that allowing Team Melli to play on the international stage affords the Islamic Republic an opportunity to whitewash its repression in the country. Others simply find it impossible to care about football while protesters are being killed.

The government’s attempts to tether Team Melli’s identity to its own, along with the apparent willingness of some team members to play along, has further upset some Iranian fans. When some team members posed for photos with President Ebrahim Raisi before setting off for Qatar, many saw it as a betrayal. Nowhere was this dissatisfaction more evident than in videos circulating on social media of Team Melli banners in Iran set ablaze — a previously unthinkable sight in the football-mad country.

It’s not the first time Team Melli has gone to a World Cup in an atmosphere of national upheaval. In fact, Iran’s first World Cup appearance in 1978 bears certain resemblances to the present. There was controversy around the host nation: Argentina, ruled by a brutal military junta that disappeared tens of thousands of leftists, was seen as an inappropriate setting for a global tournament — just as Qatar, for its treatment of migrant workers and denial of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, is today.

Read entire article at New York Times